The Pact

Written by Sharon Bolton

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.

The Pact
RRP: £14.99
Released: May 7, 2021

Waiting for exam results which will secure them places at favoured universities six friends while away the long summer nights beside the pool of Talitha’s indulgent parents. All six are ensured success, and in more than exam results; five are from privileged backgrounds, and if Megan is a scholarship girl she balances the scales with brains and drive, even status. She is head of their elite Oxford school.

So where are the challenges when suddenly there is nothing to do and the future is guaranteed: gilded but – dull? On the cusp of ennui they have invented a game which five have played already. They emerged unscathed but shocked and frightened and gloriously exhilarated. It’s a dare: to drive the wrong way down the M40. It’s Russian roulette – and now Dan, the quiet one, is cajoled and bullied into taking his turn.

Of course it goes wrong. Again the friends escape physically undamaged but they have forced another car to take avoiding action and crash and while they argue whether they should try to rescue the screaming occupants it catches fire and explodes and they flee, leaving two children and their mother to die. 

An image of their car’s registration plate is caught on camera. They panic and while they wait for the police to find them they concoct crazy alibis against a rolling background of exam results – which are as they’d anticipated except  that Megan has failed across the board. But the immediate concern is their dread of murder charges and they are close to hysteria when Megan comes up with a solution. She will confess to driving the car even in the face of life imprisonment. In return the others must sign a document committing each to grant her some unspecified service when she has served her term.

Eventually the others agree to sign; they have all their lives ahead of them, but Megan is only a scholarship girl and she fluffed her finals. Besides, she volunteered. They assure her they will keep in touch. 

Twenty years later those on the outside have, individually and predictably, achieved success. Amber is a junior minister in the cabinet, Xavier a banker, Felix a millionaire industrialist, Talitha a lawyer. Only Dan (who had been driving the car) is unmarried. He has joined a religious order but he too has climbed the ladder and is master of their old school. And now, having served extra time for bad behaviour, Megan is released and comes back to remind them of the pact.

The book proper begins. So far, in the first few pages, there was a group of careless adolescents who played a silly game to produce horror that has haunted them ever since.  Reactions have run the gamut as they tried to repress guilt by means of new lives with intense professional involvement bolstered by easy living and comfortable domesticity. Whereas in prison Megan has had to contend with violence, failing health and isolation. No one visited. No one wrote. But she has the whip hand; she holds the signed document and photographs dating from the night of the fatal crash, evidence that proves all six people were responsible, not one: the ultimate blackmail weapon. She has nothing to lose, she has served her time.

The situation has been artfully contrived. With every participant possessing hostages to fortune, there are heart-breaking dilemmas to be resolved, lines to be crossed. If murder was done on the motorway nothing short of murder can balance the books. But who and whom and how? All six were guilty: five passengers in the car were accessories even if only one was at the wheel, but how is it going to work out?

A remarkable novel: part puzzle, part morality play. Despite the bizarre premise of that outrageous dare, perhaps because of it, this one is a page-turner.

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